There are no clocks here besides the grandfather hushes of the passing trams, the ragged squeaks of an unknown object hidden around a corner, and the shiver of the lamplight, which you almost believe you can hear vibrating, over and above the purr and staticky whisk of a city that’s resting. But you know it’s late, probably too late. The long boulevard breaks up after a park and a fork and becomes a tongue of railways with grassy sideburns, and if you look that way, towards the industrialized rivers and the station, then you probably only barely missed the last hint of sunset collapsing into an indistinct glow, which was also a faltering backdrop for a parade of streetlights. Down the side street across from me, which in turn will disappear behind the laundromat, a long row of slatted shutters are lit up orange, flattened out, washed out; and the young men who often meander and play in the street are nowhere to be seen. My eyes are just about ready to fall out, roll across the room, and curl up without me in the corner. But it’s hard not to cling to the last hours of my visit: I’ve only been to France a handful of times since I moved away in May 2011, and each time it gets into me with weird intensity, like when you don’t swim for a long time, and suddenly find yourself immersed, and temporarily overwhelmed and delighted by sensations that your flighty skin had given up on. It’s hard to remember what used to cross your skin. But it’s a beautiful ethnographer’s fantasy — and totally unrealizable, of course — that you could for any length of time be entirely present in the world, fully experience your experiences, and be sufficiently sensitive to all the forces and currents that drag people one way and then another, while paying attention too to the faces in the stones and dust on the banisters, and to the spewing words that everybody is spewing, and to their little crises and funny aversions. The world always refuses to become prose. Alas.
Eli Thorkelson is writing a book about disappointed utopians in France and tending an archive of unpublishable surreal prose.